The state flower of Massachusetts is mayflower, which no longer seems an appropriate name since it blooms in April these days (I even saw some flowers in March this year). Another name for this plant is trailing arbutus, and I’ve always liked its Latin name, Epigaea repens (Ericaceae), because both the genus and species describe it well: Epigaea means “on the earth,” and repens means “creeping.” Its evergreen leaves form mats on the ground in dry, sunny areas, and its fragrant, white to pink flowers are visited by all sorts of insects in the spring.
On January 7, 2012, I went for a walk with some friends on a ridge that happens to be just up the hill from where Julia and I now live. That was the winter that I started working on my leafminer book, and a year earlier I would probably have passed off the brown edging on this trailing arbutus leaf as something unrelated to insect feeding:
However, since I had leafminers on the brain, I picked the leaf and held it up to the sky, and sure enough, I could see frass and a larva inside (the larva is at the lower left in the photo below).
I was far enough along in my book project that I was pretty sure no insect was known to mine Epigaea leaves, so I kept an eye out for more of these mines over the next few months and collected them from several different locations.
At the same time, I was systematically going through all the known groups of leaf-mining insects and tracking down literature on their natural history. One day I went to the UMass science library to peruse (among other things) some papers by Henry Hespenheide on leaf-mining beetles*. I think that was the first time I had come across his name, so that evening I was surprised to see it pop up in that annoying “ticker” column on my Facebook newsfeed, which I normally ignore. He was discussing Philly cheesesteaks with a mutual acquaintance. I suppose my eye was conditioned to spot a newly familiar name in my peripheral vision, in the same way I was beginning to spot leaf mines where I never would have noticed them before. Anyway, I was glad to know how to reach Henry if any beetle questions should arise.
On April 16, the first adult emerged from one of the trailing arbutus leaf mines, and it was a buprestid (jewel beetle) in the genus Brachys.
Brachys species are mostly associated with oaks, although some have been reared from leaf mines on various other trees. Since leaf-mining buprestids are among Henry’s specialties, I showed him this photo to see what he thought of it. He replied: “I know about this species and have a couple of specimens that Henry Howden reared decades ago. I would be happy to describe it if you have a nice series, say 5-10 specimens. . . Brachys is a VERY difficult genus with many cryptic species, but this one seems distinct enough to describe without revising the genus.”
Since then, I’ve provided Henry with around 20 specimens reared from trailing arbutus. I also collected some aborted mines and reared two different parasitoid wasps (Eulophidae) from them: three females of the purple-headed Neochrysocharis diastatae…
…and a tiny male of the genus Pnigalio, which is itself in serious need of revision:
Over the past few years Henry has studied my Brachys adults from trailing arbutus and various other hosts, plus countless specimens others have reared or collected all over North America. Last year he described three new species from New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico**, and last month our paper describing the trailing arbutus miner was published***. Henry named it Brachys howdeni, since Henry Howden was the first to rear this species. It is very similar to B. aerosus, and the number of other species hiding under that name is yet to be determined. Stay tuned…
* Hespenheide, Henry A. 1992. A review of the genus Tachygonus (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) north of Mexico. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 94(1):1-11.
* Hespenheide, Henry A. 2003. A reconsideration of Pachyschelus schwarzi Kerremans and a review of American Pachyschelus north of México (Coleoptera: Buprestidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin 57(4):459-468.
** Hespenheide, Henry A. 2015. Striking new species of Brachys Dejean, 1833 (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) from New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. The Coleopterists Bulletin 69(2):221-224.
*** Hespenheide, Henry A. and Charles S. Eiseman. 2016. A new species of Brachys Dejean, 1833 (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) from the eastern United States using an unusual host. The Coleopterists Bulletin 70(2):335-340.